Near Eastern Promises

Why Washington Should Focus on the Middle East

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh.
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh January 5, 2014. (Brendan Smialowski / Courtesy Reuters)

Contrary to popular myths and conspiracy theories about Washington’s desire to control the Middle East, for the past six decades, U.S. policymakers have usually sought to minimize the United States’ involvement there. But the high-stakes nature of American interests in the region -- particularly oil -- and the complexity of the Middle East’s problems always seem to draw the United States back in. In spite of himself, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was sucked into the Suez crisis in 1956 and the pan-Arabist revolts of the late 1950s. Lyndon Johnson barely lifted a finger to prevent the Six-Day War in 1967. Richard Nixon found himself grudgingly drawn into the region by the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the superpower nuclear crisis it caused. Despite his aggressive image, Ronald Reagan did little in response to repeated attacks in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf by Iran and its proxies. George H. W. Bush came to office hoping to ignore Saddam Hussein, not to go to war with him. And although it is rarely remembered today, George W. Bush was not particularly interested in the Middle East and paid little attention to the region prior to the 9/11 attacks.

President Barack Obama arrived in office determined to succeed where his predecessors had failed. After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, he planned to remove the Middle Eastern albatross from around Washington’s neck. In public statements, Obama administration officials have been careful to avoid any suggestion that Washington wants to “disengage” from the Middle East. But some senior officials have been known to make the case in private for why the U.S. approach to the region needs to change substantially. They have argued that the United States has consistently overinvested in the region, especially during the prior administration. They planned to correct that imbalance with a “pivot” of U.S. diplomatic and military resources away from the Middle East and toward Asia, the region where Obama believes the risk-reward ratio is more favorable to the United States.

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